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A 20th Century Bombshell

The 20th Century was extremely diverse in regards to beauty, and its perception thereof. Every decade saw styles changing and beauty standards fluctuating. We’ve previously explored 17th Century beauty in Europe. This time, let’s take a trip down memory lane through the lens of sunny California as we steep ourselves in Western culture.


Before we embark on our journey from the Victorian Era into the 20th Century, it is important to note that this time in history marks a shift in beauty's role in society. In days of yore, women with esteem were universally regarded as arm-trophies, child-bearers, or house-keepers. Any woman seeking to be a prize would stop at nothing to catch the eye of her would-be-suitor, even if it meant using dangerous chemicals. This desire to achieve perfection continued through the twentieth century, but it was far less harmful once proper cosmetic products were available.


Interestingly, it is not some women's desire to achieve perfection, nor the horrifying things endured to accomplish this feat, that has changed over the years. What has changed is the spectrum of ideal aesthetics has gotten wider. Hence, the percentage of the population able to achieve personal beauty, and the sense of confidence that accompanies it, has increased significantly.


Western beauty was originally influenced by Victorian fashion and cosmetics. With the entrance of Hollywood in the early 1900s, influence and inspiration shifted to art and film. As with today, the public was heavily influenced by celebrities (deemed such purely by the volume of people aware of their existence, and back then being in commercial film or television was the most common route to such fame). These lights-and-camera influencers were featured on every billboard or magazine cover and discussed on every radio station or talk show. The prominence and plenteousness of their images throughout the 20th-century generated a public attachment to these icons.


Princess Diana is a superlative example of how obsessive celebrity fandom can become and the Beatles for how far a groupie will go to feel close to the target of their affection. In the early 1900s, it was ladies like Clara Bow, who were so beloved by their fans that their image on a package would increase sales. In second half of the nineteenth century, the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman changed the product-icon-economies and took the leverage of stardom for financial gain to a whole new level — one that continues to be surpassed in the 21st century.


But I digress. Back to the task at hand...A noteworthy difference between the 20th-century and the years preceding it, is the demographic of beautiful people. By the 1900s, being considered conventionally pretty was no longer reserved for the bourgeoisie. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor — you just needed to fit the mould.


In the early 1900s, this mould was called the Gibson Girl. She was tall, with a slender neck, and had an hourglass figure with the tiniest waist. Her hair was always perfectly coifed in a bouffant. This ideal woman was not only perfect in looks but also in personality. She was poised, calm, (somewhat) independent, athletic, smart and knew when to stop talking.


Indeed, the Gibson Girl was always capable of carrying a conversation when required and she was convenient when idle entertainment was desired, but she never overstepped her boundaries since she knew her place in society was below that of the menfolk.

Women who were opposed to this idyllic Gibson Girl — and all she stood for — created a feminist alter ego called the New Woman. This female played the role of the hero rather than the damsel. According to historians, she is exactly like the Gibson Girl, except she spoke her mind in the pursuit of equal rights and opportunities. The New Women of the early twentieth century were not plentiful. As their notions were ahead of their time, they faced public shame and the threat of being outcast from society.


By the 1920s, Victorian fashion was starting to fade, and so were their standards of beauty. The curvy and plump woman was no longer conventionally beautiful. Men desired curve-less bodies and flat chests. To cater to those desires, women wore shapeless dresses and flatteners. Unlike the Gibson Girl, this new golden standard was a more dominant woman with a contralto voice who was only the slightest bit masculine — somewhat similar to the New Woman, without being too assertive regarding to a woman's place or status.


The ladies of the 20s sported a short bob or perm, much like the quintessential New Woman. Jean Harlow was believed to be the closest to meet this ideal. Short hair requires more maintenance, and so the regular salon ritual was born and many beauty shops opened up to meet increased demand. For the next couple of decades, this androgynous theme was present in the fashion and beauty trends of Western society.


As noted above, films heavily influenced the masses and shaped public opinion. When the likes of Mae West entered the scene and brought a combination of alluring appearance and behaviour, men's heads were noticeably turned. She was a sex symbol who paved a new path with her frank sensuality, languid postures, and blasé wisecracking.


Mae tested the limits of censorship and the attention this garnered forced the icon of the previous decade out of the spotlight. The androgynous ideal was gone with the wind. She was replaced by a more wholesome and soft-spoken lady. This new ideal woman of the 30s was tall, curvy and had broad shoulders. To accentuate her curves she wore a tight belt as she wasn't afraid of overt flirting.


As World War II came along, fashion shifted in a new direction in the 1940s. The war cut clothing production and fabric was scarce. Christian Dior's creativity set the tone for this decade as he created the "New Look" by utilizing scrap fabric and materials. His design included a corseted waist, padded shoulders, and a long puff skirt. The fashion industry marvelled at his genius and clamoured to don his wears. The feminists, however, were not impressed with his return to long hemlines and corseted waists as this set their agenda backwards.


The New Look style lasted throughout the 50s, which brought the addition of a pointed bra to enhance the tiny girdled waist. During this decade, the once prohibited sexual content was reintroduced in Hollywood as actresses like Marilyn Monroe arrived on the scene. Her confidence and carefree nature made her attractive and appealing. Ladies started to show off their wrists and knees as invitations to the opposite sex, which was very scandalous at the time. Although the idea of a blonde bombshell was lurking throughout the decade, it was solidified as the perceived ideal when Barbie dolls were introduced to the world.


The 60s saw many advancements for feminist movements like unisex clothing and the main makeup trends were light lips and strong black liner. This decade was also a time when the "ideal" body — barely anything but skin and bones — was plastered everywhere. The teenage and youthful look was the goal with celebrities like Twiggy fitting the mould best.


And since the ladies of this decade were comfortable wearing more revealing clothing, everyone's body shape was a bit more noticeable than it was during the time of shift dresses. Some women turned to cosmetic surgery or eating disorders in an effort be skinnier. The most popular procedure was removing ribs! Now, that's a tactic that makes the arsenic of yonder-years seem almost palatable by comparison.


In the 1960s, the good old Gibson Girl was transformed into the Single Girl. This woman was independent, unattached, and didn't need a husband. She was bold with her makeup, applying cut crease eyeshadow, heavy mascara on the lower lashes, and vibrant colours. In this decade, girls were beginning to have fun with cosmetics.


Like teenagers, the next two decades went through a lot of phases. The 70s was full of hippy and punk fashions. Items like one-pieces or flare pants were trendy and everyone was wearing velour or sporting big lapels. The makeup was monochromatic with a focus on strong eyes, and the hair was often feathered. Farrah Fawcett was all the rage and women were becoming influential players on the music scene.


The 80s went through a few fads of its own. From fitness clothing featuring leotards and leggings, to high-waisted acid-wash jeans, fluorescents, and lots of lace. During this time, the makeup trends were also capricious, with lots of change throughout the decade. The one constant was a lot of colour as the 80s made no apologies for its love of vivacious colours and outlandish combinations. For iconic inspiration, one need look no further than Madonna, who set several trends thought this timeframe. If she wore it, soon enough everyone was wearing it...so she would move on to the next thing because being "different" was her thing.


Notably, the 80s was also an age that welcomed more women in the corporate workplace (unapologetically, this time). The working woman looked to icons like Princess Diana for fashion inspiration, all the while infusing the boisterous and vivid themes of the decade. Near the end of the 80s, Melanie Griffith portrayed the quintessential Working Girl and cemented the playful working wardrobe features the decade is most known for: big shoulders, bold colours, and big hair.


Moving into the 90s, things took a bit of a turn. Unique and unisex clothing were celebrated. Madonna was still introducing new trends as she continued to push the envelope and wear ever-more-daring and never-before-seen outfits. But she was not alone. The attention of the masses was splintering and "mainstream" meant different things to various groups of cultural society as the 90s saw an influx of glam and grunge simultaneously.


The 90's also brought about the notion of nude makeup, as introduced by Bobbi Brown. This was the beginning of a revolution in fashion and beauty whereby a women's own skin colour and tone was the goal rather than a transformation to some idyllic conception of confirmative beauty. Each individual woman was suddenly encouraged to look more like herself in order to be beautiful. This notion seems to have rounded out the century filling the gap of the pallet with all the "real colours" available in natural female skin tones.


All in all, fashion and beauty fluctuated considerably over the 20th century. We began with a focus on body shape and the goal of conformity and ended with a focus on individualism and the goal of defining personal beauty. Currently, both ends of the spectrum are influential in Hollywood, general society, and many cultures around the world.


Which decade has your favourite fashion style or beauty trend?


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